“Lamb” by Robert Whiteman

Like the Community School of Music and Arts in Ithaca, the Trumansburg Conservatory of Fine Arts (TCFA) is a somewhat unusual venue for visual arts exhibitions. As a home for the various arts, gallery shows have to jostle for time and space with music and dance performances, as well as various classes and workshops. 

In addition, the building itself—an 1851 Greek Revival church—presents a challenge. A beautiful space in its own right, it was not designed for this purpose. Recent renovations, providing redone walls and more appropriate lighting, haven’t changed the fact that works tend to get lost in the cavernous space. Still, the TCFA has, in recent years, been able to expand their gallery programming and bring in some varied and engaging shows. 

For their fall invitational, the TCFA and new director Dona Roman have brought in independent curator Ann Welles, formerly owner of Exhibit A, a fashionable gallery in Corning. “ALTERED: Changed, Reconsidered, Repurposed” (October 15-November 20) includes work by six regional artists. 

“Altered” takes up salvage as both method and theme. As Welles writes in a gallery statement: “I was inspired by the building that houses the Trumansburg Conservatory of Fine Arts. Formerly a Baptist church, its past holds power and adds dimension to its current role in the community. I selected artists whose work can play off the building’s energy and whose practices tap into the power of the altered.” 

All of the artists present attractive, well-made work. As always, it’s worth casting a critical eye on claims of profundity that may seem out-of-sync with what is physically present. 

Just out of the B.F.A. ceramics program at Alfred University, Julianna Dougherty is working in digitally designed, 3D printed porcelain sculpture. Her intricately geometric forms suggest a contemporary response to the work of pioneering Syracuse ceramist Adelaide Alsop Robineau. Dougherty’s pieces are less impressive than the master’s in their hands-off fabrication and blunter color but possess their own complex beauty. 

Her work is the only freestanding sculpture here not mounted to wall shelves. Particularly notable are “Ring Composition 1” and “2,” each of which pairs twinned, braceleted forms—their colors reversed. 

Working in more traditional ceramic sculpture, Exhibit A stalwart Robin Whiteman makes modestly-scaled white porcelain figurines that merge human and animal forms. Her intimate pieces are sequestered on shelves mounted in the front of the gallery where they too easily get lost. Statuettes such as “Lamb” and “Goat/Girl” are quirky and sweet ventures in contemporary folklore. 

The other four artists here present work in a more expected manner, using appropriated objects, materials, and/or imagery in ways that recall the Euro-American avant-garde as well as various folk and popular traditions. 

Philip Kuznicki creates wall-mounted found object sculptures that playfully allude to the tradition of European artists like Picasso and the various Dadaists and Surrealists and their fraught encounters with “primitive” art. Incorporating antiquated, junk shop materials in inventive configurations, pieces like “Recollection” and “The Nightly News” recall masks and fetishes but don’t take themselves too seriously. 

Working in a related but less subtle manner, Ronald Gonzalez, another Exhibit A familiar, has created a large grouping of all-black figures that indulge a taste for the comic grotesque. Lit by pink and purple spotlights, a procession of them line the balcony above the main space. 

A similarly theatrical presentation might have benefited the work of Gary Sczerbaniewicz. Dioramas and architectural models can be wonderful things, to be certain. But their presence and purpose in formal gallery art settings raises questions. What are these intimate, interactive toys or tools doing in a setting that encourages contemplation at a distance? How can a narrative, storytelling art work when the stories are opaque or missing?

Evoking decayed and crumbling architectural interiors and exteriors, Sczerbaniewicz’s pieces are exquisitely crafted, using such materials as laser-cut board, cast plastic, plaster, ink, acrylic, wood, and paper. Several pieces attempt to translate the diorama format for the gallery. A triptych, the titles of which recite a version of a popular children’s prayer—“I Pray the Lord”… —stand out, reigning in some of the whimsy found elsewhere in his work to create genuine enigma. 

Two “Latent Content” pieces, each dedicated to a well-known literary anti-hero, assume a flattened-out, more abstract and decorative approach, incorporating elaborate symmetry and unexpected juxtapositions of color and texture.   

Binghamton University professor Natalija Mijatovic presents a body of self-consciously hermetic paintings. Painted in layers of acrylic grays on wood panels, pieces like “The Well” and “High Noon” capture vacant, mysterious architectural settings in a sort of painterly photorealism that broadly recalls the work of influential German artist Gerhard Richter. A blotchy patina, recalling snow and ice, covers these chilly, enigmatic scenes. 

It is welcome encountering a group exhibition at the TCFA that expresses a distinctive—if distinctly eclectic—curatorial viewpoint as well as an effort to engage directly with the building space. 

“Altered”  takes place from October 15 through November 20, with gallery hours Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, from 1-5pm at the Trumansburg Conservatory of Fine Arts, 5 McLallen Street Trumansburg.

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